December 22, 2004 Cars that monitor the driver's key biometric indicators so they can respond accordingly are on the horizon. Innovative Swiss automobile design studio Rinspeed has collaborated with plastics giant Bayer MaterialScience to produce a vision of the next generation of cars with the "Senso" concept car. Few details have been released at this stage as the car is being readied for the European 2005 auto show circuit, but the idea behind the car is that it will sense and adapt to the driver's mood. The car apparently uses a combination of biometric and other information to assess the driver's mindset, then assists the driver to reach an optimum state of mind by altering ambient light, and "feel, smell and sound."

Rinspeed is one of Gizmag's favourite designers - the company never fails to come up with an exciting and radically different concept car for each major European auto show, and unlike many other concept vehicles shown at such shows, the Rinspeed concepts are always full working prototypes - quite a feat considering the company has but a fraction of the resources of the global automotive producers.

Some of the Rinspeed concepts of recent years (all previously featured in Gizmag) include:

The Presto - an innovative car designed to help solve Europe's parking problems by changing its length from a four-seater to a compact two-seater roadster at the push of a button.

The Bedouin - an off-road collapsible car based on the Porsche 996 turbo, the Bedouin is the latest concept from Rinspeed Design, the Swiss company that introduced the Presto collapsible concept car in 2002. The all-wheel-drive Bedouin can automatically be transformed from a two-seater pick-up into a four-seater sports wagon in less than 10 seconds.

The Splash - the outrageous amphibious sportscar that was this car's direct predecessor and one of the quartet of amphibious vehicles shown or released in 2004. Though the Gibbs Aquada reaped the lion's share of the publicity thanks to rapacious Richard Branson's crossing of the English Channel, the Rinspeed Splash Amphibious Hydrofoil Sportscar had the performance edge being capable of 80 kmh (approx. 45 knots) on the water and 200 kmh on land. 007, eat yer heart out!

Rinspeed's lateral thinking and ability to meld emerging technologies into a string of of absolute leading edge automobiles is building a global respect that belies the company's size. The other and somewhat more significant automotive manufacturer playing in this space is none other than Toyota.

The world's second largest automotive manufacturer recently patented a system that enables a vehicle to recognise its surroundings, the actions of other road users and the emotional response of its driver and convey the driver's emotions to the public via a vehicle expression system on the exterior of the vehicle.

We're betting the Vehicle Expression System will never be seen beyond Japan (we see it fueling "road rage" in some parts of the world), but the data the system collects can also be used creatively and effectively in other ways.

Toyota's work in the area borrows heavily from its growing expertise in robotics, and a story in Gizmag two years ago described Toyota's POD concept vehicle as "the latest in robotics and communications technology, combined with the personality of the family pet". Unveiled at the 2002 Tokyo Motor Show, the Pod concept vehicle was a collaboration between Toyota and Sony that focussed on the relationship between car and driver.

Developed with entertainment, emotion and enhancement of the driving experience in mind, the Pod will play your favourite music, reflect your mood (and its own) through a display of different coloured lights on the front, say goodbye when you get out, thank other drivers when they let you merge and even wag its antenna 'tail' when its really chuffed.

The Pod uses a series of sensors to accumulate data on the driver's life preferences. This extends well beyond musical taste, with sensors detecting variations in driving conditions, appropriate use of steering wheel, accelerator and brakes, the pulse and the perspiration level of the driver - the Pod even employs a face recognition sensor to detect if the driver is falling asleep.

A portable unit called the 'mini pod' allows this 'learning' process to continue while the driver is away from the car - the terminal collects information such as music and television preferences inside the home and transfers this data back to the car which can act accordingly when next in use. The mini pod is hoped to become clever enough to picked up on a the name of a band whilst you were at home and this name is subsequently mentioned during conversation in the car, the Pod will immediately begin surfing the Internet to download and play their songs.

The 'smart' capabilities of the Pod also extend beyond the realm of entertainment - the driving data collected by the car can be compared with pre-recorded 'expert' data and the driver given warnings or encouragement through text on the Pod's monitor, enabling it to perform the role of a friend and driving coach. The car also features a hands only 'drive-by-wire' control system enabling steering, braking and acceleration to be operated through a single controller. So too does the Rinspeed Senso.

In many ways, the Senso and Toyota POD are exploring the same intelligent awareness space, though the Senso appears far more than just a rework of the POD concept.

Many of Rinspeed's usual collaborators have contributed to the project design and construction, plus several new collaborators have brought their expertise in data collection and Smart Surface Technology.

A sophisticated system of sensors throughout the car was developed by the Universities of Zurich and Innsbruck and a new 3D-formable electroluminescent film has been developed by Bayer MaterialScience and the Swiss electronics specialist Lumitec. This electroluminescent film uses biometric data and other information to create an appropriate level of light for the driver.

The environmentally-friendly Senso runs on CO2-reducing natural gas, puts the central focus on the driver as an individual and appeals to the emotions thanks to its unusual design. It also features an innovative outer skin coating.

Interestingly, the car is a genuine three-seater, with the driver sitting in a central and forward position, similar to a racing car. The two passenger seats are side-by-side, just behind the driver.

No mention has yet been made of the Senso powerplent other than that it runs on natural gas and petrol.

More details as they become available.

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